Emory University's reputation as one of the nation's most respected institutions has been jeopardized after its disclosure that the school misrepresented information used for college rankings, education specialists say.
"They did something blatantly dishonest," said Rita Kirshstein, director of the Delta Cost Project, a Washington-based group that studies higher education spending and affordability. "Their reputation is going to be hurt; it's not going to be destroyed."
The scent of scandal has descended on an institution that is known for its integrity and is often mentioned alongside Atlanta pillars such as Coca-Cola, the Carter Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Emory's reputation as one of the world's leading research universities is so strong that former President Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Lama have come to teach there.
It is a favorite recipient among Atlanta's most vaunted charities such as the Woodruff Foundation. Founded in 1836, Emory's legacy continued its climb in recent years by acquiring papers from notable scholars, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker.
But that distinction may be damaged after President James Wagner disclosed last week that Emory had for more than a decade intentionally misrepresented test data and other information about its students to publications that rank colleges. Students and parents turn to these rankings when deciding where to apply and attend college.
It's too soon to say what the impact will be. Emory's financial stability is not in question, thanks to its sizable endowment. At issue is trust and respect — intangibles that are crucial to a college but difficult to measure.
Education specialists said the deception may have punctured the aura of a school that challenges itself in its vision statement to be "ethically engaged." Students describe Emory as an institution where professors routinely stress the importance of integrity.
The misrepresentation could cause students to choose other schools, experts said. Emory attracts high-achieving students who have choices and are likely to succeed anywhere they go. These discerning students may pick other colleges in the "Kudzu League," a group of Southern upper-echelon schools that includes Duke and Vanderbilt universities.
In the wake of the news, alumni said they may donate elsewhere or not donate as much. The university may struggle to attract the right administrators, experts said.
The biggest damage may be Emory's celebrated status in the Atlanta community, said Kirshstein, who graduated from Emory in 1970 and whose daughter earned a degree there in 2004.
Students on campus were shocked by Emory's deception. The school's actions conflicted with the message sent to students, senior Jarquisha Hollings said.
"They're always teaching and talking about integrity," Hollings said.
While the disclosure doesn't change Hollings' views about the university, she worried what high school seniors considering applying to Emory will think.
"If this is all you know of Emory, would you want to come here?" she asked.
Emory intentionally reported inflated information about students' scores on the SAT and ACT for more than a decade. The college turned this information over to the databases used by publications that rank colleges.
Two former admission deans and leadership in the Office of Institutional Research were aware of the misreporting, the investigation found. None of the responsible employees still works at Emory, officials said.
The university's new dean of admissions noticed the data discrepancy in May, which triggered an internal investigation. Investigators found no evidence that anyone in the provost's, dean's or president's offices knew about or encouraged the reporting of false information.
Officials said steps will be taken to make sure data is reported correctly and to make clear the importance of integrity.
U.S. News & World Report officials said the false reporting would not have changed the No. 20 ranking it awarded Emory last year. The issue, however, is greater than a numerical ranking.
"They've done more damage with this than if they fell to 21st or 22nd place in U.S. News & World Report," Kirshstein said.
Prospective students and others will be leery of the information Emory provides, said Mark Schneider, vice president for new education initiatives with the American Institutes for Research.
Students could be spending thousands more a year to attend Emory because they believed the college's data, he said.
"When you hear of a prestigious university like Emory saying they did this, it's really bad," Schneider said.
Incoming freshman Thomas Partin said he is "extremely disappointed," but said the false information doesn't represent Emory as a whole. His father teaches at Emory's medical school and he's met several professors over the years.
"Obviously, this doesn't look good, and maybe people will think twice about coming to Emory, but I think it will blow over eventually," Partin said. "Sure, high school seniors will look at Emory differently, but I don't think high school freshmen will."
Emory isn't alone in altering data. Claremont McKenna College in California admitted earlier this year that it provided inflated SAT scores to U.S. News. Iona College in New York disclosed it reported inaccurate SAT scores, graduation rates and alumni donors. And Baylor University admitted to offering financial incentives if students retook entrance exams in the hope of earning higher marks to boost to the school's average score.
Emory's investigation was unable to determine exactly how, why and when the misreporting began.
Wagner, who has been president since 2003, said "trust is a vital currency" and that it's essential for students to trust the university and for the public to trust its extensive research and health care programs.
While Emory strives to be an ethical place, "we are a human institution ... we are not perfect," he said.
This is only the latest incident to raise questions about Emory's integrity.
Emory Healthcare announced in April that it had lost 10 discs containing personal data such as Social Security numbers for about 315,000 patients. Officials acknowledged the discs were not stored according to protocol and said the hospital system was clarifying policies and procedures to ensure patient information is secure.
Emory University came under scrutiny for its handling of Dr. Charles Nemeroff, an internationally recognized expert on depression who was stripped of his chairmanship of Emory's psychiatry department in 2008. He failed to disclose $800,000 in speaking fees from a drug company and was the focus of a congressional probe on conflicts of interest.
University officials said they had raised concerns about Nemeroff's relationships with drug companies several times since 2000. But the professor, who brought in millions of dollars in grants, remained department chairman until he came under congressional scrutiny. He has left the school, and Emory has implemented new conflict of interest policies.
Kirshstein said some people might see a pattern of wrongdoing on the part of Emory. This current instance, she said, is more visible because it is a lie that impacted students.
She sees some likely financial impact, especially in less alumni giving.
"When I sit down to write my little check," Kirshstein said, "I might send it to my graduate school, the University of Massachusetts, which needs the money."
Misrepresentation of data
Emory University disclosed last week that officials had intentionally misreported admissions data. None of those responsible is still working at Emory, officials said.
The school's internal investigation found that officials:
— Used SAT/ACT data for admitted students instead of enrolled students since at least 2000. Using admitted students' information artificially inflated Emory's test scores. For example, officials reported that the 25th- to 75th-percentile SAT scores for the 2010 cohort were 1310 to 1500, when they were actually 1270 to 1460.
— Overstated the percent of incoming students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. Emory said that 87 percent came from the top 10 percent in 2010 cohort, when it was actually 75 percent.
— May have excluded the scores of the bottom 10 percent of students when reporting SAT/ACT scores, GPAs and those in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. Evidence suggests this did not happen after 2004.
Emory posted more information at: www.emory.edu/datareview.
Source: Emory University